Space Center Balances Nature and Launch Operations
In a place where rockets and spacecraft are prepared for trips out of this world, there lies a paradise that has been protected from commercial and residential development for nearly 50 years. It's the harmony of NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida and the landscape it shares with the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge that piqued the interest of dozens of employees to take a field-guided boat tour of the area during Kennedy's first Innovation Expo on Sept. 6.
Inomedic Health Applications, or IHA, led the tour called "Living Outdoor Laboratory for Environmental Sustainability," which ferried employees through areas that have been closed to the general public for decades because of launch operations taking place at Kennedy and the adjacent Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.
"The goal out here, of course, is to launch rockets," said IHA aquatic biologist Eric Reyier. "We're tasked with protecting the natural habitat in as healthiest state as possible."
During the tour, Reyier pointed out the refuge's countless nooks and crannies that are providing habitats for more than 1,500 species of plants and animals. He also outlined some of the innovative partnerships Kennedy has embarked on with other government agencies and universities to help monitor the local ecosystem.
For example, biologists are able to track the movements and survival rates of sport fish, sharks and protected sea turtles with the Florida Atlantic Coast Telemetry, or FACT, Array. The strategically placed constellation of sensors tracks tagged animals as they move through Kennedy and the rest of the Indian River Lagoon. They've even detected other researchers' animals from as far north as Connecticut and New York.
"The technology is sort of expensive and so by teaming up with these other groups, we're able to only provide a fairly small percentage of the infrastructure but we're able to answer some pretty important ecological questions," Reyier said.
Aquatic biologist Doug Scheidt also has been working on finding answers to some of those tough ecological questions. Right now, for example, the lagoon's normally clear water is murky. Scheidt said it's partly due to an algae bloom, which he and his group see about once or twice a year. They're working to understand what causes the bloom and how it affects the lagoon's seagrass, which is a natural source of food for Florida's endangered manatees.
"From a regional standpoint, we have over 70 percent of the wetlands," Scheidt said. "We also have one of the largest expanses of seagrass beds in the area, which are important to other animals outside Kennedy's gates because these are high-quality habitats. So, animals can move into the area and conversely some of these animals can actually move outside the region and can actually move globally."
The reasons for protecting the area are three-fold, according to biologists. First, federal mandates are in place to protect the wetlands and surrounding lagoonal waters, as well as several threatened or endangered species of animals. Second, through stewardship, the space agency is working diligently to execute its mission without compromising our planet's resources. Third, there is a substantial role that the ecological health of Kennedy's wildlands and the refuge play in our economy.
"The economic value of the Indian River Lagoon was estimated at about $3.7 billion with a 'B' every year," Reyier said. "Fisheries alone is worth $330 million a year to the region in terms of benefit. That's got to be hundreds of jobs directly, or indirectly. And by preserving this habitat and the wildlife in a fairly healthy state, we preserve that economic benefit as well."
Just as the jobs of Kennedy technicians and engineers are pretty demanding and of national importance, it's no different for the biologists and scientists working with IHA.
"There's no doubt that we're able to enjoy the view while we work. Today, for example, we saw dolphins, manatees and a bald eagle all within 30 seconds of each other," Scheidt said. "The fact that we get to do science that benefits the ecological community here and elsewhere makes coming to work every day a pleasurable experience."
NASA's John F. Kennedy Space Center